Our columnist wants riders to stop telling themselves they’ll be safe and start demanding FEI rules on frangible technology.
I’ve spent the past weeks debating what to say here. I wear several different hats in the eventing world: I’m an upper-level competitor and trainer, event organizer, chair of the U.S. Eventing Association’s Cross-Country Safety Sub-Committee, vice chair of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Eventing Sport Committee, and most importantly I have an amazing wife who’s competed at the top of the sport herself, and a 9-year-old son.
All of these experiences allow me to see the complex issues we’re facing from several different angles. We’ve come so far as a sport in so many ways. Since the safety crisis in 2008, eventing has made leaps forward. From frangible technology, to better education for riders, trainers and officials, the steps forward have been remarkable. So why is it then that I feel so disappointed with the current state of safety in eventing? If we’ve made all of these great leaps forward, why am I, and why are so many others, so disheartened by current events?
One Brave Competitor
In the 1960s Formula One racing was in a real crisis, and the safety issues that plagued the sport finally came to a head in 1966. Interestingly, the governing body didn’t address these issues. Instead, they were initially confronted by one man, Jackie Stewart.
In the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix at a track that was known to be exceptionally dangerous, a sudden rainstorm popped up on the first lap. That rain forced half of the drivers to lose control of their cars and spin off the track. Stewart was among these drivers and was left trapped in a ditch in his crumpled car with fuel leaking all around him. There were no officials nearby, so two drivers who had also crashed decided to get their friend out of the overturned wreck. Stewart was quoted as saying, “It turned out I only had a broken collarbone, but it was simply ridiculous. Here was a sport that had serious injury and death so closely associated with it, yet there was no infrastructure to support it, and very few safety measures to prevent it. So, I felt I had to do something.”
How was Stewart able to influence changes to his sport? Not only was he one of the best drivers on the circuit, but he was also willing to take the inevitable criticism that came with speaking out for change. At the time, drivers who raced for five years had a one in three chance of being killed. It was the most dangerous sport in the world. Stewart knew this, faced the reality, and decided something needed to be done. He was able to implement full face helmets and seat belts for the drivers. He convinced the circuit to employ a medical unit that traveled to all the races and to institute barriers at particularly dangerous corners to protect drivers and spectators.
All of these things seem so simple now, but at the time they were incredibly controversial. Many critics said he was ruining the sport, taking out the element of romance. That he was trying to remove the swashbuckling roots of racing. Best of all they said he had no guts. This was all happening while he continued to win race after race in horribly dangerous conditions. In the end Stewart succeeded in dramatically improving safety in what was an incredibly dangerous sport.
This all sounds far too familiar to eventing. If a rider gets up the courage to bring up concerns about safety at a particular fence it’s not uncommon for them to be dismissed by officials or for other competitors to have a quiet chuckle at their expense. The tone around the conversation is unbelievable, and the instant feeling is that obviously that rider is a complainer, has lost his edge, or is just plain scared.
When safety is discussed, there are many ideas for improvement. We need better course design, better safety mechanisms for jumps, better officiating, and most of all we need better riding and horsemanship. However, in order to continue improving in all of these areas we need to focus on each of them individually. For today my focus is on what we the riders need to do to force improvements in the sport that we love.
The technology we have today for frangible and collapsible fences is so much better than it was even five years ago, and it keeps improving every year. In the United States and a few other countries, the rules mandate the use of this technology whenever and wherever it’s appropriate. Additionally, the designers and builders are allowed to be creative and employ new ideas on the field of play that they feel will help increase safety. This mandating of the currently available safety mechanisms doesn’t diminish the thrill of the sport. The riders still respect the courses and are still riding great. In fact, I would argue that as a whole the riders today are more accurate and skilled than ever.
So why then is this technology not mandated by the Fédération Equestre Internationale? I’m dumbfounded by the detractors of mandating the use of frangible and collapsible technology at the international level. At a minimum you would think they’d be concerned about the liability involved if someone is killed at a fence that could have been built using a modern safety mechanism. Beyond that, how can anyone morally allow a fence to be jumped that is not as safe as possible?
The good old days when “things were right” are long behind us. Truthfully, they weren’t that good, and they weren’t that right. So let’s move on into the next century and use what’s available.
How is it that this technology has not been mandated, you ask? The answer is simple. The riders don’t care enough yet. If we did we would force this to happen. All it would take is one boycott of one major event to demand a change. When one group of riders is willing to get together and say, “No, this isn’t good enough. We demand you build it safer, or we will not jump,” then things will really start to change. Sadly, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
I’m as guilty as the next competitor is on this subject. Do you know how you get brave enough to run around a big advanced cross-country track? You lie to yourself. Yes, I am aware of the dangers of the sport, but on the day when the countdown happens you lie. You tell yourself it won’t happen to you. You convince yourself you’re better than the others, and you make better decisions. You believe that if things aren’t going well you will make the right choice and wait for the next time, but mostly you convince yourself you’re the best rider in the field, and it won’t be you who gets hurt today.
You have to because if doubt creeps into your head you’re as good as finished. It’s going to take a truly brave rider to stand up and convince his fellow competitors that it’s time to demand a change, it’s time to tell the FEI that these technologies that are tested and proven to increase safety must be used. It will take a brave community to say that without mandating their use we won’t run; we won’t compete.
A few weeks ago in France a young man was killed. He had a family. He was skilled at his craft. He had jumped around much bigger, more difficult courses than he was competing over that day. I didn’t know him, but I know many people just like him. I have many friends who I compete against every weekend. Everyone in this sport does. If not for ourselves then we owe it to each other to make our voices heard and to insist that things get better.
It’s not good enough to assume that if you’re OK with a fence not having proper safety devices on it then it’s not your problem. When a fatal accident happens at an event, we need to ask ourselves some very difficult questions:
- Could that fence have been safer?
- Could frangible technology have been used?
- If it was used, was it used correctly?
- Did we notice something about that fence beforehand that we should have said something about?
It’s our responsibility to look out for each other. The days of leaving that to the officials have passed. The officials generally do a great job, but they’re only human. If we notice something that doesn’t seem right, then it’s our duty to say something.
Over the past several weeks this is the conclusion I have come to: The time for sitting back and lying to ourselves has passed. Convincing yourself that it won’t happen to you is not bravery; it’s ignorance. Not being honest with ourselves or each other is not being kind; it’s not helping us to keep our edge. It’s simply being consciously ignorant.
We must demand that every available opportunity for safety be used. It’s time to stand up and insist that the FEI mandates the correct use of frangible and deformable technology in every application possible. I’m not sure we have it in us, but it’s time to be truly brave.
Jonathan Holling has been a mainstay at the top level of eventing for close to 20 years, competing in North America and Europe. He won the 2012 Bromont CCI*** (Quebec) and was a member of that year’s Nations Cup team at Boekelo (the Netherlands). Jon has successfully ridden around numerous four-star events. He serves on the U.S. Equestrian Federation Competition Management Committee, Eventing Committee and High Performance Eligible Athletes Committee. He started contributing as a Between Rounds columnist in 2015.